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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Court debtors win with ruling

Hearing must come before jail time

Offenders who owe court fees and fines are no longer being forced to agree to a pre-determined jail sentence if they fail to make scheduled payments.

The Washington state Supreme Court has ruled that people with court debts are entitled to a new hearing to gauge their ability to pay.

Someone who lost his or her job, for instance, or who was hospitalized might be given the chance to make a new payment arrangement and avoid automatic jail time, said Scott Mason, an assistant Spokane County public defender.

Washington is one of a handful of states that jail people for court debt or charges related to that debt. That practice crowds the jails and penalizes the poor, criminal justice experts and advocates for the low-income say.

Previously, every person booked into jail for charges stemming from failure to pay court fees, fines or court-ordered restitution – called legal financial obligations – was visited by a collections officer from the Spokane County clerk’s office. The clerk would ask the prisoner to sign a document promising to make a specific monthly payment and agreeing to serve additional jail time if he or she failed to do so.

The state’s high court ruled on June 10 that “a trial court must inquire into the offender’s ability to pay” before sanctions are imposed.

Susan Gasch, a Spokane attorney, argued the case in March. She explained that when a person violates parole, which is how the courts categorize a failure to pay court debts, he or she is “entitled by due process to a hearing at which a court should determine at that time if the violation is whether the person has the current ability to pay.”

It took the court only three months to make a decision.

“This is a super-quick turnaround time and reflects the Supreme Court’s concern about legal financial obligation collection problems,” Gasch said.

Spokane County authorities say the clause that pertained to jail time was changed locally last year, prior to the ruling, because it was too problematic.

“The judges decided we didn’t want to have that on the form,” said Maryann Moreno, Spokane County Superior Court’s presiding judge. “We decided we’d go ahead and have the hearing.”

But the court ruling means the decision cannot be reversed.

Two other changes were made pertaining to people owing court fees, fines and restitution: Anyone in custody for legal financial obligations automatically gets a public defender, and the county is looking at alternative ways to collect the arrears payments, such as collections companies, Moreno said.

Officials don’t believe changes in handling people who owe money to the courts has contributed to a drop in the jail population locally.